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By Tom Cushing

A Pope That a UU Can Love (mostly), Part Duo: The Church

Uploaded: Dec 12, 2013

This will be the second of three installments on Time's Person of the Year, specifically his EVANGELII GAUDIUM, a principles roadmap to guide his papacy. The first column described broad themes; this one focuses more narrowly on his Church ? both internally and in the world.

Speaking to his flock as Catholic Church leader, he wants to transform their relationship to the institution. He sets up a series of contrasts: affiliation as a source of freedom, not servitude; confession not as a torture chamber but an experience of God's forgiveness; the Eucharist not a prize for the perfect, but a medicine to nourish the weak; and church as a place of celebration for all, rather than a tollbooth on the road to salvation. He wants an inclusive institution ? a place of open doors. "'Mere administration'" can no longer be enough," he writes, quoting his Latin American colleagues. "Throughout the world, let us be "'permanently in a state of mission.'" (23)

Consistent with his decentralization theme, he also wants a Church that inculcates introspection and self-critique as a basis for constant renewal. "This is the source of the Church's heroic and impatient struggle for renewal: the struggle to correct those flaws introduced by her members, which her own self-examination, mirroring her exemplar Christ, points out to her and condemns." (25)

Francis also counsels his priests specifically on their sermonizing. Responding to the run of routine clerical messages he deems too doctrinaire, he wants his pastors to emphasize his themes in their homilies: charity over temperance, and grace over rules. He wants them to celebrate successes, and to preach Love, and joy, in service to humankind. He and his cardinals must do likewise, he says, and be open to the implications of this new openness.

The new Pontiff also signals incremental openness to an expanded role for the women of the Church, although here he stops far short of transformation. In a cringeworthy description of the unique attributes of women as a stereotype, he "acknowledges the indispensable contribution which women make to society through the sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess." (81) While calling for the "inclusion of their genius in all expressions in the life of society," and expressing that "men and women are equal in dignity," he applies the brakes to any fundamental equality in their roles as Church officers:

"Legitimate rights [of women present the Church with profound and challenging questions that cannot be lightly evaded. The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion ?" (83)

That's progress, I suppose, and it may signal an end to the institutional persecution of the 'nuns on the bus,' but it stops far short of consistency with the stated principle of equal dignity. Francis may be an incrementally more modern male than his predecessors, but as to gender issues, his Church will vary its course only by degrees.

Still more troubling is his failure to meaningfully address the worldwide child abuse scandal at the hands of pedophile priests. An entire sub-chapter is devoted to "Temptations Faced by Pastoral Workers," but never does he name that scandal, or promise to reform the Church's disgraceful approach that has been consistently secretive ? protecting the guilty to tragic consequences among the innocents.

The closest he comes is an acknowledgement of the "shame we feel at the sins of some members of the Church, and at our own" (63), as a dependent clause in a passage about how much good the Church does. There is also an oblique promise to "create spaces where pastoral workers can be helped and healed?" (63), but that's it, including no specific reference to criminality, or to comfort for the many victims of clergy sex abuse. That's hugely disappointing ? seeming to wash his hands of an issue that continues to cripple his church as a moral exemplar, and failing at the deep introspection he calls-for elsewhere. Is there really Any internal issue more important than that?

Turning the focus to the Church in the external world, as part of his Integration theme, Francis proclaims that the Catholic Church must be present in the social dialogue. He specifically identifies The Poor (next installment) and Peace as issues appropriate to religious concern. Peace, he states, is not the result of any balances of power, but a matter of integration ? the knitting of its peoples into an interdependent web (a very UU concept!). He posits four great principles to guide his church's contributions to the dialogue.

First, Time over Space. "This principle allows us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently endure difficulties ? and accept the tension between fullness and limitation." (171) It focuses effort on initiating processes and celebrating progress toward the bearing of fruit, rather than the fruit (or space) itself.

Next, Unity over Conflict. Conflict must be faced, without becoming trapped in it. "? it becomes possible to build communion amid disagreement, but this can only be achieved by those great persons who are willing to go beyond the surface of the conflict and to see others in their deepest dignity." (173) Reconciliation (as the events of this week remind us) is greater than mere compromise, and necessary to the unity that inspires progress. Amen. Are you listening there in the capitol?

Third, Reality over Ideas. There's a constant dialogue between the two concepts ? the ideal and the possible. He favors the latter: "This calls for rejecting the various means of masking reality: angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom." (175) If the perfect is the enemy of the good, this Pope will go for the good, every time.

Finally, the Whole over the Part. This concept seeks to balance the global with the local ? global principles, expressed locally, and daily. Small actions, consistently taken, have a greater than additive effect in improving the world's condition for all its citizens.

In summary, Francis wants his Church to play a much more central, integrative role in the narrow individual lives of parishioners, and in the broadest sense in cultural life of the world. I do not see him as a reformer intent on scrubbing clean the darker corners of his institution, but as a "servant leader," exhorting his church to follow his example and reach out to engage with the temporal world, relieving its suffering, especially for its most downtrodden denizens. In that sense, he's quite consistent ? opting for the Good, but not Perfect.

Coda: one heartening, if brief, passage for animal advocates that I've never seen expressed (except by me) ? that doesn't fit anywhere else in this series. Francis, much more than his namesake, sees a solemn duty in humankind's dominion over the planet and All its inhabitants.

"There are other beings who are frequently at the mercy of economic interests or indiscriminate exploitation. I am speaking of creation as a whole. We human beings are not only the beneficiaries, but also the stewards of other creatures. ?. All of us, as Christians, are called-upon to watch over and protect the fragile world in which we live, and all its 'peoples.'" (167-8)

Next/last: The Pope and unfettered Capitalism, an expression of Liberation Theology.